Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Term derived from series of publications on "The Fundamentals" of the (Christian) faith (1910-1915) that served as a point of reference for groups of conservative American Protestants early in the twentieth century, now commonly used to describe attempts inspired by a religious vision or sacred text to resist or turn back liberal or secular tendencies in theology, culture, and society, regardless of historical religio-cultural origin; has drawn increased public and scholarly attention in the late twentieth century in efforts to understand groups ranging from the American Christian Right to Shi'ites* establishing the Islamic Republic of Iran.


In scholarly discussion, three types of definition prevail. The subjective definition relies on what believers or movement participants themselves mean by the term. In the American context, this identifies as fundamentalist either, narrowly speaking, those who identify themselves as such or, more broadly, those who profess adherence to certain fundamentals of Protestant Christianity, such as the inerrancy of the Bible. This approach facilitates making useful distinctions, in the American case notably between fundamentalists and evangelicals , but limits analysis to societies where the term has been used and to groups that use it, ignoring factors that influence the self-perception of groups and resistance to use of the label.

The variable historical meanings and political content of fundamentalism are the concern of those favoring a sociohistorical approach. They are interested in the renewed use of religious symbols for what actors claim to be conservative political purposes. Focusing on public action and the consequences of religion, they have a sound basis for comparative analysis but discount the actual experience of religiously inspired groups.

A third analytical type of definition derives from a theoretical interest in fundamentalism as one type of antimodernism characterized by value-oriented dedifferentiation. Fundamentalism here refers to those engaged in reintegrating a social order under the canopy of one all-encompassing sacred tradition. This approach facilitates systematic explanation of fundamentalism as a type of movement and stresses its significance in the context of modernization, but engages in reinterpretation of subjectively understood terms and symbols, and cannot account for variable uses of the concept of fundamentalism. These three ways of studying fundamentalism serve different purposes and are often combined in the work of individual scholars, as illustrated in the volumes of The Fundamentalism Project , which itself is guided by an inductive definition stressing family resemblances among various groups of religious conservatives with partially overlapping aims.

Origin and Meaning

The main substantive trend in social analyses of fundamentalism is the emergence of an account of the rise and role of fundamentalism that debunks misconceptions, specifically the view of fundamentalism as an archaic form of religiosity of the culturally backward who seek to bring about a moral cleansing of societies that have lost their traditional bearings. In this view, fundamentalists offer certainty in periods of social crisis, through antimodern means and goals, and thus represent a real threat for liberal modernists.

Fundamentalism may seem archaic to those who think cultural certainty is something not to be achieved in this world. Yet many of the themes in fundamentalist thought derive from recent intellectual developments, such as the individualist premises and post-Newtonian commonsense philosophy that American evangelicals shared with other religious groups. Moreover, adhering to tradition is different from traditionalism, a deliberate effort to regenerate tradition and make it socially significant again. The latter is a form of engagement with the modern world. In fact, the activist thrust of certain fundamentalists involves important changes in the "tradition" they claim to represent; their traditionalism is in some ways bound to be revolutionary, as the actions taken by the Ayatollah Khomeini in merging political and religious leadership demonstrate. Is fundamentalism nevertheless religious activism of the culturally backward? Few present-day fundamentalists can claim elite status. At the same time, it is now well known that early American fundamentalist leaders were by and large highly educated urbanites, several from elite institutions, and that in Iran students and merchants played a crucial role in the Islamic Revolution of 1978-1979. In many instances, those experiencing a kind of social transition, moving into closer contact with "modernity," are more likely to respond to this in a fundamentalist fashion.

Are fundamentalists antimodern in their worldview? The orientation of ordinary fundamentalists partly fits this element of many scholarly approaches: The opposition to the evils of modernity is real; its plural and inclusive world is to be replaced by a highly integrated and closed one. Yet the very antimodernism of fundamentalists is problematic, due to the ways in which even self-styled fundamentalists are implicated in the culture of modernity. American fundamentalists, for example, come from a tradition that used to value religious pluralism and separation of church and state; the differentiating rationality of modern times is by no means alien to them.

The fundamentalist predicament stems even more from the very pressures to which any kind of antimodernism is exposed in a minimally liberal environment. Modernity is a corrosive force, by making religious traditions less and less significant in social affairs and by making the very idea of a return to certainty and homogeneity implausible. With few exceptions, fundamentalists wanting to make a case for change must appeal to modern principles for legitimation; in the process, the radical implications of the fundamentalist stance are moderated. This means that the certainty offered by fundamentalist leaders is at best a temporary solution. Not only does fundamentalism have its origins in a sense of uncertainty, of a tradition under siege, the envisioned center cannot hold. Applying a presumably old tradition to new problems invariably rekindles dilemmas the fundamentalist project intended to resolve. As a result, the influence of fundamentalism is also easily overstated. In any recognizably full-fledged form, it is a rare phenomenon. Even where conditions seem fertile, often only small minorities of potential activists become deeply involved in public action. The influence of fundamentalism is limited, at the very least, by the cognitive bargaining with modernity in which fundamentalists must engage. Beyond this general limitation, there are many local conditions that determine the fortunes of fundamentalist efforts. Only occasionally do these conditions help to make fundamentalists flourish and gain great influence; the Islamic Republic of Iran in the 1980s was the prototypical (but still exceptional) case.


Apart from some work on non-Islamic fundamentalism in Asia, most scholarly analysis has focused on a limited number of fundamentalist manifestations in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—traditions concerned with shaping the world according to a religious vision based on textual fundamentals. Lawrence (1989) views fundamentalism in the context of a struggle with modernism and modernity. In accounting for fundamentalism, the impact of the Great Western Transformation comes first. Although the variant force of this impact explains the emergence of fundamentalism in the form of self-conscious groups, it is a necessary, not a sufficient, condition. To clarify the active "defense of God" from the inside, Lawrence further examines how actors bring the resources of their tradition to bear on problems they encounter. When those resources include precedent for sectarian action and a scripture that can serve as script, fundamentalist modes of dealing with social crisis become more likely. In particular instances, fundamentalism also is fueled by doctrinal debates that may have little societal relevance (such as those in America over millennnialism and evolutionism). When this symbolic fuel mixes with the structural inequities prevalent in countries that experience modernization as a relatively alien imposition, fundamentalism becomes a plausible vehicle for resistance.

Riesebrodt (1993) conceptualizes fundamentalism as one kind of radically traditionalist movement, which typically has its origin not so much in a grand ideological struggle between modernity and tradition but, instead, in the increasing inability of traditional cultural milieux to reproduce themselves under modern (concretely: urban) conditions. Central to this reproduction is an overriding concern with maintaining or restoring a patriarchal structure. Finding variations on this general theme becomes a matter of identifying the factors aiding in the mobilization of protest movements that hark back to an original community, albeit for highly contemporary purposes. In the case of turn-of-the-century American fundamentalism, he emphasizes both internal stimuli, such as the resistance against church bureaucratization, and external conditions, such as the sociocultural differentiation of major cities. In the case of Iran, he highlights not only the impact of modernizing structural change in society at large but also such factors as the actual threat from state action experienced by traditional milieux and the pervasive influence of new, Western cultural conceptions.

Lechner (1985) has incorporated variables like those employed by Lawrence and Riesebrodt but focuses comparisons more clearly on an analytically derived question. He treats fundamentalism, like Lawrence, as a form of antimodernism in the analytical manner, and modernity more broadly as a particular, relatively recent form of social order characterized by structural differentiation, cultural pluralism, social inclusion, and world mastery. Emphasizing antimodernism serves to show the many ways in which fundamentalism is implicated in and co-opted by the culture it opposes. Treating relevant variables more abstractly and regarding the patriarchal thrust of some fundamentalist movements as part of a larger process, Lechner proposes the following pattern: Religious movements are more likely to become a significant fundamentalist force in a particular society if they have at their disposal a tradition that can easily be interpreted as legitimation for dedifferentiation, if modernizing change represents a special problem for religiously constituted groups, if a fundamentalist program is the most effective and most plausible way to define and resolve multiple discontents, if there are historic precedents in the society for religious attempts at significant social change, if the society in question is not inherently culturally pluralistic or socially differentiated, and if the main concerns of an emerging fundamentalist movement cannot be channeled or deflected by existing institutions. Tracing this pattern in different times and places shows not only how fundamentalist movements can emerge but also why in most cases their influence is severely circumscribed. Theoretical contributions to The Fundamentalism Project build on such analyses linking the dynamics and ideology of movements to their context, and confirm the movements' likely limitations.

Fundamentalism as a Global Phenomenon

As many students of fundamentalism have recognized, it is no longer a phenomenon affecting only some societies but has acquired a new global meaning. The predicament addressed by fundamentalist movements is a global one. Modernity is no longer a "societal" phenomenon, if it ever was. A reaction against modernity therefore necessarily has global implications; it entails a worldview in the literal sense of advocating a distinct view of the world. For Islamic fundamentalists, this includes an obligation to spread the Islamic revolution and defeat the dominant Western Satan. A global culture becomes the target of fundamentalist movements. The defenders of God aspire to bring the kingdom of God to the Earth as a whole, and in this sense they become important actors on the global scene. As global antisystemic movements, they attempt to resolve worldwide problems in global fashion—changing both the actual balance of power in the world and the cultural terms on which global actors operate.

The changing global condition not only becomes context and target of fundamentalism but also serves as its primary precipitating factor. Apart from globally induced variations in the strength of fundamentalism, the very attempt to restore a sacred tradition as a basis for a meaningful social order is globally significant, as one effort among others to preserve or achieve a certain cultural authenticity in the face of a greedy, universalizing global culture. It is a particular, albeit radical and problematic, form of striving for communal and societal identity under circumstances that make such deliberate identification a global expectation. Indeed, fundamentalism itself has become a global category, part of the global repertoire of collective action available to discontented groups but also a symbol in a global discourse about the shape of the world. In the process, the term has become contested everywhere, leading to concern about its use as a way to denigrate the aspirations of some movements. Yet seeing fundamentalists locked in a struggle about the shape of the world is to recognize part of their actual predicament, not to deny their particularity in imperialist fashion. Studying such particularity as such has become difficult in any case; fundamentalism is inevitably contaminated by the culture it opposes. No fundamentalist can simply reappropriate the sacred and live by its divine lights. The very reappropriation is a modern, global phenomenon.

Influence and Future

The global turn in the study of fundamentalism was partly inspired by widespread concern about the possible public influence of fundamentalism. The scholarly and the public interest in fundamentalism converge on the question about the likely extent of this influence. There are grounds for judging this influence to be relatively minor and for skepticism about the overall future of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is a quintessentially modern phenomenon. It actively strives to reorder society; it reasserts the validity of a tradition and uses it in new ways; it operates in a context that sets nontraditional standards; where it does not take decisive control, it reproduces the dilemmas it sets out to resolve; as one active force among others, it affirms the depth of modern pluralism; it takes on the tensions produced by the clash between a universalizing global culture and particular local conditions; it expresses fundamental uncertainty in a crisis setting, not traditional confidence about taken-for-granted truths; by defending God, who formerly needed no defense, it creates and recreates difference as part of a global cultural struggle. So compromised, fundamentalism becomes part of the fabric of modernity.

Being thus compromised portends a problematic future for fundamentalism, seen from a fundamentalist point of view. It indicates one of the ways in which fundamentalism, like any other cultural movement, engages and must engage in creolization, juxtaposing the seemingly alien and the seemingly indigenous into a worldview and identity that combine both in new seamless wholes. The hybrid results become a normal feature of globalization, which robs cultures of easy authenticity while making the search for the authentic a virtual obligation. If the point of fundamentalism is to restore an authentic sacred tradition, this means that fundamentalism must fail.

This failure is exacerbated by the modern circumstances fundamentalism must confront. In some respects, modernity does act as a solvent, undermining the thrust of fundamentalist movements. Insofar as a society becomes structurally differentiated, religion loses social significance; once that happens, restoration is difficult if not impossible. In differentiated, specialized institutions engaged in technical control of the world, religious distinctions have little role in any case; the very conception of infusing a perceived iron cage with religious meaning necessarily remains nebulous. If a culture becomes pluralistic and tears down its sacred canopy, those who would restore it are themselves only one group among others. Making claims for a fundamentalist project requires wider legitimation, except where there is overwhelming popular support; such wider legitimation entails diluting the message. Trying to act globally with some effectiveness presupposes the use of global means—technological and institutional—but satellite dishes and nation-states draw the would-be opposition farther into the culture it claims to disdain. Although its relative success varies according to the conditions sketched above, fundamentalism is inevitably coopted. Being modern and becoming co-opted presupposes that there is a viable modern order to be coopted into. The future of fundamentalism is thus closely linked to the future of liberal modernity.

Frank J. Lechner


N. T. Ammerman, Bible Believers (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987)

S. A. Arjomand, The Turban for the Crown (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988)

S. Bruce, The Rise and Fall of the New Christian Right (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989)

J. D. Hunter, American Evangelicalism (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1983)

G. Kepel, Muslim Extremism in Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985)

B. Lawrence, Defenders of God (San Francisco: Harper, 1989)

F. Lechner, "Fundamentalism and Sociocultural Revitalization," Sociological Analysis 46 (1985):243-260

G. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980)

M. E. Marty and R. S. Appleby (eds.), The Fundamentalism Project (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991-1995)

M. Riesebrodt, Pious Passion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993)

M. Watt, Islamic Fundamentalism and Modernity (London: Routledge, 1988).

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